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To the Reader
You may recall that, some years back, I was witness to the violent demise of famous gunfighter—lawman Clay Halser.
Following that tragic incident, I was requested by the management of the hotel at which Halser was staying to inspect what meager goods he possessed with the intent of returning them to his family in Indiana. This request was made of me because I had known Halser since we first met during the War Between the States.
In the course of examining his goods, I ran across a stack of record books in which Halser had kept a journal from the latter part of the war until the very morning of his death.
This journal was prepared and edited by me and published in May 1877 to some measure of success.
I mention this as introduction to the incident that occurred in September of that year in the town of Deadwood, the Dakota Territory.
As you may know, this was the town in which James Butler Hickok—known by the sobriquet of Wild Bill—was murdered by a drifter named Jack McCall, whose assassination of Hickok will doubtless be the single notable event of his life. McCall was hanged for the crime on March 1 of that year.
By coincidence, I happened to be present in Deadwood on assignment from The Greenvale Review, preparing an article on the aftermath of Hickok’s murder: its effect upon the community, their reaction to McCall’s hanging, their recollections of Hickok as a man and a celebrity.
I intended to incorporate, within these facts, some comment as to the perilous mortality of men like Hickok, who had not yet reached the age of forty when he was killed. Halser had, as a matter of fact, died even younger, at the startling age of thirty-one.
I was staying at the Grand Central Hotel, compiling the disparate elements of my article, when someone knocked on the door of my room.
I rose from my work and moved across the floor to see who it was.
A woman stood in the corridor; short, comely, with glowing red hair. She was wearing a dark brown dress with a white lace collar and a small brooch fastened to it. On her head was a brown bonnet with green ribbons. She wore dark gloves on her hands in which she carried a wooden box approximately twelve by ten inches in dimension, four inches thick.
"Mr. Leslie?" she asked.
"Yes." I nodded.
"My name is Agnes Lake Thatcher Hickok," she said.
I felt a tremor of astonishment at her words. How incredibly synchronous, I thought, that Hickok’s widow should be knocking at my door at that very moment.
"I’m delighted to meet you," I told her. "Did you know that I am in Deadwood preparing an article about your late husband?"
Was that a flicker of uncertainty across her face? She seemed, for an instant, to be on the verge of drawing back.
"Nothing captious or lurid, I assure you." I told her hastily, "Only a generalized appraisal of the community’s reaction to your husband’s . . . death." I had almost said "murder," then withheld myself from the word, fearing that it might prove disturbing to her.
"I see," was all she responded.
I stepped back and gestured toward the room. "Will you come in?" I invited.
A natural hesitation on her part; she was a lady, after all, and not about to enter a strange man’s room unquestioningly.
I was about to suggest that we retire to the dining room when she murmured, "Thank you," and came in. Later on, I arrived at the conclusion that she had not wanted to be seen in public saying what she had come to say lest it be overheard and misconstrued.
Quickly, I removed some books from the one chair in the room and set them on the room’s one table. I gestured toward the chair and, with a "Thank you" spoken so indistinctly that I could barely hear it, she sat down, placing the box on her lap.
"Well," I said. I hesitated before sitting on the bed, thinking that it might make her uncomfortable, then decided that my standing would make her even more ill at ease and quickly settled on the mattress edge.
I forced a polite smile to my lips. "What can I do for you, Mrs. Hickok?" I asked.
She gazed at me with a restive appraisal for what must have been at least thirty seconds. Then she swallowed—the sound of it so dry that I considered asking her if she would like a drink of water—and clearly came, once more, to the decision that had brought her to my room in the first place.
"I have read your . . . presentation of the journal written by Mr. Halser," she began.
I nodded. "Yes?"
Another lengthy hesitation on her part. I heard her swallow dryly once again and, this time, did inquire as to whether she would care to have a drink of water.
She responded that she would, and I stood at once, moving to the table where I kept a carafe of water and two glasses. I poured some water into one of them and handed it to her. She thanked me with a bow of her head and took a sip from the glass.
She then placed the glass on top of the table and looked at me again.
"I have come to Deadwood to visit my husband’s grave," she said. "I am traveling with Mr. and Mrs. Charles Dalton and Mr. George Carson."
I nodded, wondering why she told me this. I said nothing, however. Clearly, she was discomposed, so I sat in quiet, allowing her to proceed at whatever pace was necessary for her.
"We have all decided," she went on, "that the grave should remain undisturbed."
I nodded; still waiting.
"Accordingly," she said, "we have agreed that arrangements will be made to erect a fenced monument to my husband’s memory."
"Of course," I said, nodding once more. "A splendid idea."
She drew in a long, somewhat tremulant breath and fell silent again. I had to wait further, sensing that, were I to press the situation, she might depart, her mission unstated. And I was beginning to sense—with a tingle of expectation—what that mission might be.
"I have, in this box," she said at last, "a journal written—no," she broke off suddenly, "not a journal," she amended. "My husband did keep a journal, but that was burned."
Burned! The shock of hearing that obscured her continuing statement. My God, I thought; it was true then, the protracted rumor that Hickok had composed a journal. And it had been burned? I could not adjust to the revelation, it was so confounding to me.
"I’m sorry," I was forced to say. "I didn’t hear that last remark."
She hesitated as though questioning my reliability.
Then she said—repeated, I assumed, "What my husband did leave behind was an account of his life based upon memory."
She patted the box. "I have it here," she said.
I tried not to reveal the eagerness I felt at what she’d told me. She had brought this manuscript to me? I was overwhelmed.
"I . . ." She swallowed again and required some moments to reach for the glass again and take another sip of water. I sat in restless silence, attempting with great difficulty to keep my fervor from showing. I doubt if I entirely succeeded.
"I presume—" she said, then drew in wavering breath, "that . . . the magazine you represent is willing to . . ."
She gestured feebly.
I don’t know why I felt such a rush of terrible embarrassment for her. There was no reason whatsoever that such an astounding find should not be compensated. If she had mentioned this immediately, in a matter-of-fact manner, I would have merely nodded in agreement, thinking nothing of it.
Not that I felt any less that Hickok’s reminiscences should be paid for. It was her awkward broaching of the subject that made me feel a sense of great discomfort for her.
She needed money; that was clearly the situation. She had every right to it and yet the obvious tribulation of her need for it was unsettling to me. I swallowed dryly now.
"Well, of course—" I began and had to clear my throat in order to continue, "I am certain that the magazine will be more than pleased to remunerate you for the manuscript."
I felt an inward groan assailing me. It was apparent that, no matter what I said or how discreetly I said it, it was going to come out wrong; which, of course, it had. Mrs. Hickok could not contain a blush of disconcertion and, from the warmth I felt on my cheeks, neither could I.
"You . . . feel they would be . . . interested then," she said.
"Oh, definitely. Definitely," I replied, acutely aware that I spoke too loudly, too excessively.
Her smile was—I can use no more apt description—heart-wrenching.
"I never intended for the book to be seen by the public," she explained. "I thought of burning it as my husband had burned his journal. To keep it from the world, to . . . protect his reputation. However . . ."
I could only stare at her in mute distress. What could there be in the memoirs that she thought might harm her husband’s reputation? For several moments, I felt an urge to tell her to leave immediately and take the manuscript along with her. I had a specific image of Hickok. Did I want to risk it?
What was there in the man’s account that might conceivably undo that image?
Without telling them why I was asking, I approached a number of people who knew Hickok personally, seeking in their recollections some verification for the memoirs he wrote.
For a time, I convinced myself that the manuscript was fraudulent; that I had been the victim of a hoax.
That soon abated. The memory of Mrs. Hickok’s unquestionable pain made it clear beyond a doubt that her words were sincerely motivated.
So, with due emphasis on this point, I present to you the memoirs of Wild Bill Hickok.
I have done a minimum of editing on them. Unlike Clay Halser’s journal, this is not a day-by-day account, with the inevitable excesses of such a manuscript.
There is a minimum of repetition or irrelevant commentary in Hickok’s memoirs. It is, instead, a remarkably clear-eyed appraisal of the events of his life, written with the intent of describing it exactly as it was.
The contents may surprise you.
July 19, 1878
Excerpted from The Memoirs of Wild Bill Hickok by Richard Matheson.
Copyright © 1996 by RXR, Inc..
Published in August 2009 by A Tom Doherty Associates Book.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
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